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Three prominent figures from Williamsburg came together Thursday night at the College of William & Mary to address homelessness and poverty in the Historic Triangle.
While homelessness and poverty are nationwide struggles, City Council member Benming Zhang, 3e Restoration founder and president Fred Liggin and City of Williamsburg Emergency Outreach Coordinator Roy Gerardi illuminated the issue with a local light Thursday night.
“Now, people are actually realizing we have an issue here,” Liggin said.
The discussion was part of a week-long series of events at William & Mary spotlighting personal, social and political issues relating to homelessness and poverty. The events, including an outdoor art exhibit, a poverty simulation challenge, and two documentary showings, described how poverty directly affects communities in the Historic Triangle.
About 20 William & Mary students attended the panel discussion, which was sponsored by student group and nonprofit Greater City.
The panel was balanced with figures from several facets of Williamsburg: The emergency outreach positon is part of Williamsburg Human Services, 3e Restoration is a local nonprofit that aids homeless people and those in extreme poverty, and City Council is a group of elected government officials.
During the panel, the leaders agreed changing the “city’s narrative” is an important part of addressing poverty.
“We’re going to have to retell the story of this city,” Liggin said. “Every city has a soul, and that soul is usually the people that make the city tick. The people that make this city tick are the ones suffering the most, because they’re the ones serving our food and taking the tickets at our rides.”
Zhang added that Williamsburg staff and council members are working to strengthen partnerships with local nonprofits and other community support groups to address housing issues. He added that City Council is considering doing a study to determine housing needs in the area.
“As a local government, despite having conservative fiscal management, I think one thing you have to realize is that we do have compassion,” Zhang said.
According to 2014 data from the United States Census Bureau, 20.1 percent of residents in Williamsburg are living in poverty, a substantially greater percentage than the U.S. poverty rate of 13.5 percent.
Williamsburg’s poverty rate is also almost double Virginia’s rate of at 11.5 percent of the population.
While panel moderator and Greater City’s former Executive Director and Founder Brian Jenkins said the amount of resident college students with low incomes may slightly inflate Williamsburg’s poverty rate, he said the rate is still undeniably higher than other localities in the state.
Jenkins also works for Local Voice Media, WYDaily’s parent company.
“It’s not a problem unique to Williamsburg, but it’s a significant problem in Williamsburg,” Jenkins said in an interview before the panel discussion.
Gerardi said he believes homelessness and poverty is a five-fold issue.
“Mr. so-and-so can get a job making $20 an hour – boom, great, problem solved,” Geradi said. “But the reality is that what drives poverty and homeless is other realities: social realities, spiritual realities, cognitive realities, emotional realities and health realities.”
Students at William & Mary make up about 43 percent of Williamsburg’s population, Zhang said, meaning social movements and pushes for change can have a big impact on the community.
Liggin also agreed college students are an important part of the discussion.
“What college students can do is be informed about what the issues are, understanding what the barriers are that keep those initiatives from being employed and, more importantly to me, know what the real story behind poverty – and then to tell that story as publicly and as passionately as humanly possible,” Liggin said. “So that way, the people who have lived here for 20 years and have blinders on and don’t want to see that there’s a problem … college students can tell them no, we have 450 homeless children, you can’t tell me we only have 26 homeless people.”
Gerardi stressed that college students can provide support to the homeless and poor beyond advocating for social and political change.
“We’re not that different from each other,” he said. “We all have this longing to be loved or in a relationship. We want friends, we want our kids to have the best. When you get to know these people, you realize we’re cut from the same cloth.”
The discussion on homelessness and poverty in the Historic Triangle continues Friday with “Shaped: Creative Expressions of Poverty.” The event will be held in the Chesapeake C room in the William & Mary Sadler Center from 5:30-7 p.m.
During the event, William & Mary students will share how poverty has shaped their stories through song, poetry, spoken word and visual art, according to a Facebook page for the event.
The art exhibit, featuring a collection of pieces from local and student artists expressing their experiences with poverty and homelessness, will also be up through Friday on Crim Dell Meadow at William & Mary.
Fearing can be reached at 207-975-5459.